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Leading Knowledge Workers: Avoid These 5 Leadership Sins

Layne McDonald. Ph.D.

If your actions create a legacy that inspires others to dream more, learn more, do more, and become more, then you are an excellent leader. - Dolly Parton

According to the latest studies, the average employee delivers only 50% of what they can offer to your organization; as a leader, you are frustrated by this lack of performance. You like to clone your high performers to become more purposeful, like the entrepreneurial companies you see in the marketplace.

To capture the talents and potential of today’s knowledge workers, you must recognize the dramatic rise in the numbers of these employees. Knowledge workers are the individuals who use their brains instead of their brawn to get work done. These are the information specialists, researchers, marketing, and sales experts whose talents drive the success of your business. To ensure high performance, you must manage these talented individuals differently than past employees. Their abilities can help you take your business to the top. But like a spirited racehorse, they must be managed with care.

Avoid these five deadly sins, and you will capture knowledge workers' discretionary energy and build enthusiasm:

#1. Focus only on what is wrong.
The no news is good news approach to leading knowledge workers is a receipt for disaster. You might think that employees who are not screwing up do not need to hear from you. But knowledge workers want to be recognized. They need your attention. Recognize progress and give recognition to foster their talents, help them move in the right direction, and fuel their enthusiasm. Avoid focusing only on what is wrong and acknowledge what is going right.

#2. Ignore poor performers.
High-performing knowledge workers want you to deal with poor performers; otherwise, the problem lands in their lap. You must address performance challenges by coaching the employee, reassigning the individual to an area where their talents are best suited, or removing them altogether. In either case, pay attention to problems and take corrective action. Do not let laggards linger, derail your progress, and de-motivation other employees.

#3. Overlook boredom and talent misfit.
Job uncertainty and fear may prevent employees from speaking up about the needed change. It would help if you noticed when individuals lose interest, struggle in their current position, or slack off for unknown reasons. Address these issues head-on instead of allowing them to continue. There is no joy in just getting by. You do not help employees by allowing a bad fit to continue. Tough love for self and others is part of moving into the new economy.

#4. Let them say YES to everything.
Help knowledge workers curb their appetite to work on interesting projects unrelated to business priorities. No matter how exciting a project is, you must help employees discern: Is this project contributing to the goals of the business? Can I justify the time and energy I am spending on it? Will this initiative help us achieve the outcomes we want? Many times, knowledge workers bite off more than they can chew. A wise leader helps employees set limits and say no for their own sake and the business.

#5. Do not give feedback.
No one wants to hear in corporate life: This is not working. But individuals need to know when their attitudes and behaviors are causing others a problem. No matter how exceptional the person is, they can make a mistake sometimes without knowing it. A wise leader helps individuals recognize problems and learn from difficulties. Do not wait until there is a crisis to raise a touchy subject and give feedback. Regular feedback helps employees grow.

Your primary role as a leader is to help knowledge workers contribute their talents. Involve them in critical decisions and welcome their input. Encourage collaboration with others who will stretch their minds and capabilities. Ensure employee talents are visible, seen, and appreciated by others in the organization. Remember, knowledge workers want to use their abilities to help your business grow. Put these ideas into action and watch teamwork and performance skyrocket!

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